How virality is choking the music industry
What those TikToks of your fave popstars complaining about their record labels says about the state of music in 2022.
Imagery via TikTok
It’s been a scary week for social media managers working in music. After sharing a TikTok claiming their label wouldn’t let them release a new track unless it came with a viral moment, Halsey set socials alight with a conversation about the way TikTok has taken over music marketing. This was echoed by the likes of Florence Welch, twigs and Charli XCX in a viral tweet — their captions about labels demanding TikToks painting a picture of execs holding pop girlies hostage unless they perform a silly little song and dance — that caused a brief bit of chaos until Charli shut it down with a short tweet": “not me - I was just lying for fun”. In pointing out that the caption itself was a meta attempt to go viral — marketing that takes hits at marketing — does that mean the state of the industry is even worse than we thought?
The weird, studied nonchalance of the whole thing has divided the internet. When Florence Welch is suddenly posting singing videos after years of being aloof online, labels inevitably take notice. They schedule a TikTok into their new marketing plan despite knowing it doesn’t quite align with the artist. And then people like me (social media managers) post it, from some office somewhere, drafting briefs for how an artist could use a trending hashtag or the new big sound. The whole process splits opinions between ‘everyone should be on TikTok’ and ‘this is ruining the music industry’ – leaving artists to decide where they’re going to fall when it comes to their own socials and risking a blowout with the label’s digital team.
“I feel like I make more TikToks than the label could ever ask for,” says Piri, of Piri + Tommy, who recently signed with EMI after their track “Soft Spot” gained over 100k uses on the app. Having a social media platform change your life is, of course, a great incentive to keep you posting, regardless of whether you personally enjoy it. Piri now averages two videos a day, while Tommy remains largely inactive with only two to three videos a month. It’s the same story with Rachel Chinouriri, who had a string of viral successes with “All I Ever Asked” and “So My Darling”. “TikTok is the one app I’ve asked to do myself, but my label will mention it now and then, and inform me on hashtags or speak to me about trends. But in general, they leave it to me.” For Rachel, the opportunity to go viral is only one benefit to the app; she treats her account as a new iteration of the ‘finsta’; putting personality first, music second. “I’ve been able to build a platform from just being myself, which I prefer,” she says. But when she admits to struggling to take a break from posting on the app for fear of “losing momentum”, as though her growing success and fan support could be undone by taking a couple of days off, the darker side seems to creep in.
Sitting in the app’s biggest age bracket of 15-25-year-olds, Piri and Rachel are their own target audience; they’re making music for their peers. Others, like Rebecca Lucy Taylor, AKA Self Esteem, struggle with the pressure to post as digital teams attempt to take the same mainstream hyper-digital approach with the 6 Music favourite. “I felt it, and I know I’ll really feel it on the next album to remain relevant. But then why is relevancy linked to youth? TikTok feels like a weapon of that — to perpetuate this obsession with youth as the best thing you can be.” Demanding that all artists do as ‘the kids’ do, Rebecca’s discomfort around how the obsession with an app with such a young audience teeters into ageism brings out a far more nuanced conversation, beyond the surface level ‘fuck labels’ sentiment. Why are labels so desperate to apply the same techniques to every artist, treating them as social media commodities to sell or personalities to market, rather than talented musicians with their own unique creations, fanbases and brands?
“My main issue is how personal it has to be, suddenly you’re selling parts of your personality that were previously just nice things about”, Rebecca says, “and if it doesn't quote-unquote work, it puts you in a real mindfuck of thinking, ‘well, parts of my personally aren’t good enough’. The currency can't just be you and who you are. The currencies have got to be the music and the merch and the live show and the performances… but it's so less about that now. It's the toll it takes on your self-worth that needs to be looked at.”
And while Rachel and Piri both sing praises for TikTok, that toll is still there. “As an artist, all your platforms become about promoting yourself. It makes you feel super self-conscious because you are borderline seeking approval and people can be so nasty”, Rachel says. Comment section nastiness is nothing new for Piri, who has previously spoken out about the hate she receives in comparison to her male peers. “Half the things I post, I get hate for. And I know that if a guy posted this, even if Tommy did rather than me, he would get overwhelming love.” Pointing out the downside of focusing so heavily on personality content, the age-old issue of people deeming women ‘annoying’ for being confident quickly rears its head. “Girls get hate just for existing,” Piri continues. “I'm trying to promote my songs with a couple of videos and people are like ‘you’ve killed the song, now I'm never gonna listen to it again’.”
This is what the Twitter discourse fails to consider. The pressure on artists to be more accessible, more digital and share more about their life behind the music in order to promote it — whether their label is demanding it or not — steps into uncomfortable territory. This pressure is especially harsh on women; a double-edged sword of having to post more to promote yourself, while still meeting the societal demand that women be attractive but not too confident, funny without being annoying. And as industry heads continue to buzz about the power of TikTok, many are still yet to put any support or infrastructure in place to carry the extra burden placed on artists; or indeed to protect their private selves while demanding they be more open and vulnerable online — all in the name of coaxing more streams out of their followers.
In a digital sphere where attention spans are ever-shortening and mass opinions change in seconds, is it truly that beneficial to hook artists’ careers onto something so flimsy? Boiling artists down into bite-size, catchy clips, the demand to embrace the short-form doesn’t provide much hope for future artistic growth. “If I had a TikTok song that suddenly doubled my audience,” Rebecca wonders, “I don't know how amazing that would feel. How real are they? And how much are they going to be there for me on an album where I maybe change things up in a way that's a bit harder to digest?” By putting more importance onto factors beyond the realm of artistic merit as we empower the opinion of strangers online to now somehow play a huge role in someone’s career, we transform musicians from respected artists into pop culture personalities at the whim of the public.
“What is the solution here?” Rebecca asks. “Because it's a great tool to use but feels so damaging, long-term.” Even for artists that have benefitted greatly from TikTok and have no qualms with exceeding the demands to post, the hold the app has on music is felt everywhere from the studio to the boardroom to socials. New artists uproot the charts with overnight hits; others are led to believe it really is that easy (it isn’t); and then labels expect whole rosters — often those who built careers before TikTok even existed – to compete with the same viral standards of success. This kind of pressure comes at the expense of an individuals private life and self-worth. “I think it’s going to be like how they all thought smoking wasn't bad for you,” Rebecca says. “I think this is going be our version of that, and us artists will be our 60s and 70s, dealing with a deep-rooted terrible backlash from this.”
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